Photos provided by Lars, Dave, Chris, Brett and Ron
This summer I received an email from the Herd of Turtles 4x4 Society, inviting me to join them for their "Turtle Jam" on Apex Mountain. I've always wanted see the trails on Apex Mtn because that's where the Jeep Jamborees have been held. HOT4x4 would be running many of the same trails. So I sent in my registration and last weekend, I joined the teeming masses of long weekend traffic and slowly made my way through the Fraser Valley, over the Cascade Mountains, and into the Similkameen Valley.
By the time we started climbing up the south side of Nickel Plate Mountain, it was close to midnight and I was regretting my last-minute insistence on finally closing the gaping hole in my transmission tunnel prior to this trip. With the new sheet metal and twin-stick boot in place, Brett and I could no longer avail ourselves of the 4.0L six-cylinder blow-drier air that normally blew in from that hole. The lack of extra heat became very noticeable as our altitude increased and by 6000 ft, I really wished I had left that big old hole alone. And yes, I could've brought the full soft-top instead of just the bikini top, but where's the fun in that?
Besides closing up the hole in the floor, other get-done-before-the-big-trip items included installing 2" BDS springs, making/installing longer shackles for the rear to make room for the springs' military wrap, installing longer bump stops so I don't put the springs into negative arch, and making/welding extended bump stop pads onto the spring u-bolt plates. In short, the Jeep was now 2" taller and I was hoping I didn't reduce my suspension's up-travel by too much.
The campsite was on the north side of Nickel Plate Lake which required driving for about 15 min. along a very car-hostile road. This was probably one of the nicest campsites I've come across, especially one that could hold so many vehicles. There were about 30 trucks parked there, with tents set up along the lake and among the trees. The camp was very clean, and there were about a dozen people chatting amiably around the central campfire. Ron and Dolores Gooch came up to say "hi" as I pulled in, and they made space beside them for our tent. The last time I 'wheeled with them was in 2001 when we travelled down to the Rubicon, and I was looking forward to 'wheeling with them this weekend. With their help, Brett and I got our gear set up in record time, and we were drinking beer in front of a warm fire in very short order. The plan was to meet at the staging area at 9:30am and so, with the usual poor judgement, I finally crawled into my sleeping bag at 3:00am.
The next morning came around like bad news and refused to let me sleep. I stumbled out of the tent and started cooking breakfast. I managed to introduce myself to a few other 'wheelers (including some guys from the Ridge Runners 4x4 club out of Washington, and one of their buddies from California), and re-introduce myself to people I've met so long ago that I forgot their names. Mike Allan and his buddy Chris came down from Prince George. I was surprised to see him driving a tall 4Runner, since he was a Chevy man the last time I talked to him.
True to his threat, Wes had everyone at the staging area by 9:30am. While the liability waivers were being signed (I always use a false signature in case I want to sue later), the Lippmanns showed up with their big yellow trucks (Early Bronco, CJ7), along with Steve Ulmer in his big blue Early Bronco.
With everyone assembled, the trail assignments were read out. Brett and I were assigned to run Black Powder. The other two trails that day were Winchester and Green Dragon. Our trail leader, Gord, warned us that there would very likely be winching involved on the 2nd half of Black Powder.
We hit the road at about 10:30am. We only spent about 5 min. on the main road before we turned off onto a small side road to head towards the Black Powder trail head. Along the way, we passed a large rock garden that Gord said we could play in later.
The actual trail head for Black Powder was a nondescript turn-off in a small field. It entered into the trees after about 75 m and we stayed under the tree canopy for the rest of the day. The ground here was very damp, so dust wasn't an issue at all. It was very, very pleasant driving. The temperatures were cool but comfortable, and the views, although claustrophobic, were actually very nice. The occasional mud hole or tight turn were the only things that required much attention. That was the first part of the trail. A stock 4x4 would have found it challenging, but for the modified trucks in our group, it was a cakewalk.
The second part of the trail was separated from the first by a forest service road. Anyone who didn't want to continue could head back to camp or the rock garden from here. But everyone stayed, so off we went on to part two. Part two was a little muddier, but where it really became a challenge was near the end, when we were faced with three muddy steps, over a 100 m stretch of ground.
Our trail leader, Gord, gave the first step a few tries but couldn't pull his rear tires over. He ended up winching. After him came Mike Allan in his tall Toyota 4Runner. Mike didn't have enough approach angle so he kept pushing his front bumper into the step before his tires had a chance to claw at the step. For Plan B, he rode his driver's side front tire up the side so that only his left side would have to climb the wall, plus he could get more clearance under his bumper this way. But the plan failed because he couldn't get the driver's side rear tire to follow the same line. He also winched.
Next up was me and I decided to try to high side it right away. I had an advantage with my shorter wheelbase, front and rear lockers, and more aggressive tires. With some careful driving, I got both my front and rear driver's side tires onto the high side of the trail, and kept my momentum going so my right side could climb up the step. Things were going great until my Jeep slipped further to the left (or I drove it too far left) and my low side sunk even deeper into the left-hand rut. I very, very, very nearly flopped the Jeep onto its side. Steve Ulmer, who is a big guy, quickly came to my aid. He grabbed my Jeep by its high side...and then began pushing it really hard to scare me even further. It'll take a while. Maybe a long while. But I will get even with him. But in the meantime, I will go on to admit that after that bit of hi-jinx, he put a snatch strap onto my roll cage and, with help from Armin and Marty, they pulled my Jeep down and allowed me to try to crawl even further forward. I managed to get both front wheels over the step, but my right rear started riding up against a tree. Any further movement would force the wheel higher and put my Jeep on its side. After some careful back and forth maneuvers, I was able to back the Jeep out and put it safely on level ground. My second attempt, as if the first weren't enough, was to simply hit the step head-on. That resulted in me getting the front wheels over and that's all. I also had to winch.
My ego was pleased to see that everyone else had to winch, too. Steve's Bronco had a bad day. He gave it several high rpm attempts before choosing to winch, then his winch solenoids froze in the ON position, and ended up melting some of his wires. So Dave had to turn his Bronco around to winch him over the step. Once that was done, Steve couldn't restart his Bronco until he shorted the starter posts with a screwdriver. Meanwhile, because there was no room to turn around, Dave had to back his Bronco up the next two steps, succeeding with the first one, but failing on the third, and tearing off some u-joint straps in the process. So while people were throwing their trucks at the first step, wrenching and head scratching was being done on the Early Broncos. Kyle gets a major pat on the back for working extremely hard to get three of his tires over the step with his solid-axle Explorer, without the aid of a front locker, no less. Then he had to work even harder on the second obstacle which, by now, was just plain butt-ugly and I'd say he was at it for at least half an hour. Winching wasn't a suitable option at that point due to the bad angle, the weight of the vehicle, the Broncos in the way, and the downhill angle that the winch would be at. If we really, really had to get him out right away, we could've done it. But people weren't in a big rush, anyway. Kyle was at the back and not blocking anyone, and the Broncos were being fiddled with so they weren't impatiently waiting for him. So Kyle gave it the ol' college try while Gord and others pitched in to help with some manual labour.
I can't recall if he managed to drive out or was winched out because I was helping Dave and Steve replace the u-joint. I think he was able to drive out.
The third and final step required some rpm but aside from that, it didn't pose much of a problem.
Our reward for all that work was a lunch break in a meadow about 100 m away, and that was our turn-around point. Obviously we were there for the journey and not the destination. I mean, we could've parked at the obstacles and walked there and saved over an hour or so of time! But we're four wheelers in an age of $1.00 per litre gas. Who expects us to be sensible?
Going back down the three steps wasn't without difficulty, either. The first and second steps were badly chewed up, with the first now having a near vertical face that could tip you into a tree. Scott ripped back a front fender flare on his Unlimited Rubicon, and also put a small dent in the fender. Mike put a dent in the front and rear fenders of his 4Runner. On the way back to camp, Marty and I played briefly in the rock garden.
Back at the camp, news of the day's carnage was eagerly exchanged and many people who weren't on our run ribbed me about almost putting my Jeep on its side. The rest of the evening was spent around a roaring fire and trading stories.
The next morning came with less pain. It was a sunny morning and I actually felt quite cheery as I began making breakfast and going through the morning rituals. Today we would be running Winchester. Based on yesterday's reports, it would be a cakewalk. It sounded like off-camber slopes would be the main difficulty, and I had done a LOT of off-camber stuff on Vancouver Island so I wasn't concerned at all. Actually, the main concern for me came when Wes, our trail leader, said the trail would be very dusty. That's not something an open-top four wheeler likes to hear, especially when he's 'wheeling with crushingly expensive camera gear.
And sure enough, when we got on the trail, it was very dusty. Fortunately, there were only four trucks in our group that day, so the dust wasn't as bad as it could've been. The dirt portion of the trail began inside the Apex ski hill village and after cruising along a creek for a few kilometres, we began switch backing our way up the side of a mountain. Some of the turns were extremely tight and steep, and at times it seemed like the vehicle that just made the turn ahead of us was now directly above us. The terrain here was much drier than on Black Powder, which was why there was so much dust. The dry, loose ground also made the off-camber sections much more UN-nerving for me because my Jeep slipped sideways a bit on some of the side-hills. Normally, this isn't a big deal. As I previously mentioned, I have done many side-hills on Vancouver Island. The difference was that a lot of the side-hills here weren't crowded on both sides by trees. Some of them had open fields on the downhill side, promising a fun barrel roll and a major test of your roll cage's welds if you were unlucky enough to go for a tumble.
There were also a lot of tight turns amongst the trees. I was constantly amazed that Mike Allan managed to slip his tall Toyota through without taking any body damage. He had to work harder than the three Jeep Y's in the group, but he still got through it all, except for the very last section near the top. It was just too tight and off-camber, plus immediately after that obstacle, we would be stopping for lunch and turning around. In that last section, I got cocky and sped between two trees and bashed the corner of my windshield frame on a tree. It bent back the rain gutter and I knew I would have to hammer it out before re-installing the hard doors for our trip home.
The view from the turn-around point was magnificent. We could see Okanagan Lake, as well as a bit of Highway 3A, and dozens of surrounding mountain tops. It was the perfect place for our lunch break.
The trek back down the mountain was uneventful, aside from the usual queasiness on some of the off-camber sections. At one point, I was pushing my way through some branches that were jutting into the trail when I realized that a really big one was about to spear me in my ribs (one of the joys of 'wheeling without doors). That immediately got all my attention and while I was moving the Jeep back and forth to get the branch of out my way, my front right tire went off-trail and onto the surprisingly soft and wet ground. Of course, that was the downhill side of the trail, and any forward or backward movement resulted in that corner of the Jeep sliding further off the trail. Much to everyone else's amusement, I had to use my winch to pull my Jeep the twelve inches needed to get back onto the trail.
I suppose that was just karma because 5 minutes earlier, I had laughed at Wes when he had a similar incident when he couldn't make it around a tight corner and ended up going off the road and had to winch his Jeep around, too.
Speaking of which, all of us open-top Jeep guys must've had bad karma because we were suddenly deluged by rain for about 5 minutes. Of course, since it was sunny when we left camp, none of us had our roofs on, and I even left my camping gear spread out back at camp to dry out while I was on the trail.
Despite these little incidents, and frequent stops and photo opportunities to watch Mike carefully maneuver his 4Runner through the trees, we made good time. We were off the trail early enough to stop at the Gun Barrel pub in Apex for nachos and beer.
Back at camp, Brett and I packed up our soaking wet gear and loaded up the Jeep. I did a sledge hammer repair on the windshield frame which, naturally, resulted in me putting huge cracks in the windshield glass. But at least I got the door back on.
Before we descended back down to Highway 3a to head back to Vancouver, we made a stop at the French Mines. I've been there before but Brett hadn't, and they're always fun to poke around in anyway.
We had a great time and are eager to go back. I could see myself spending a week camping by Nickel Plate Lake and exploring all the old mining claims and 4x4 trails. Hats off to the Herd of Turtles 4x4 Society for putting a very fun event and introducing me to new trails. They put in a tremendous amount of work the weekend before, just to clear the trails, and they were wonderful hosts. If you ever get a invitation to 'wheel with them, don't turn it down. You can visit their website at: www.hot4x4.ca.
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